“I feel very, very badly for the children there,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan this week. No, he wasn’t talking about underprivileged children in South America, malnourished kids in Africa, or children in war-ravished regions throughout the world. No, the Secretary was referring to children in Texas. According to Bloomberg News:
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Texas’ school system “has really struggled” under Gov. Rick Perry…and the states’ substandard schools do a disservice to children. “Far too few of their high school graduates are actually prepared to go on to college. I feel very, very badly for children there.”
Perhaps Duncan is upset with Texas for rejecting Race to the Top, or for state leaders guarding their state’s educational authority by rejecting national standards, or for questioning the Obama Administration’s continued executive overreach.
Examining the state’s current academic standing relative to the rest of the country makes one wonder why Duncan feels “very, very badly” for the children in Texas in particular.
There is a lot of room for improvement in the Lone Star State, but Texas students are more or less comparable with the rest of the country. In reading, 28 percent of 4th graders in Texas are proficient (compared to 32 percent nationally), and 38 percent of 4th graders rank proficient in math (compared to 38 percent nationally).
While Texas is on par with the national average in math and is only slightly lower than the national average in reading, for some reason the state has caused deep anguish for Duncan. Yet Duncan shed no tears over Washington, D.C.—a city education researcher Jay Greene refers to as a “pool of failure.”
The Secretary did not feel “very, very badly” for the poor children trapped in the most dangerous and underperforming schools in his backyard in Washington, D.C., last year. He did not object to Senator Richard Durbin’s (D–IL) effort to end the city’s highly successful voucher program, which was helping low-income children attend a private school of their choice that better met their needs and kept them safe. He and President Obama stood idly by while the vouchers were being phased out.
Thankfully, because of the efforts of Speaker John Boehner (R–OH), the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has been restored and expanded.
Duncan does not feel “very, very badly” for the children in the D.C. Public School system that ranks at the bottom of all states in terms of academic achievement and first in school violence. No, he feels “very, very badly” for children in Texas.
Unfortunately, as Professor Greene noted in recent remarks in Boston, there are more of what he identifies as “pools of failure” than of “pockets of excellence.” According to Greene, 68 percent of districts across the United States are below the 50th percentile in mathematics achievement. In more than half of states, no more than three districts have average student math performance that would place students in the upper third of math achievement in international comparisons.
This culture of mediocrity has emerged during a half-century of federal intervention into schools that has left parents and taxpayers with less ownership of their local schools. Duncan should feel “very, very badly” for children across the country who are trapped in schools that don’t meet their needs. While 200,000 children in 18 states and D.C. have access to private school choice options, many more are in schools that are underperforming, assigned to them by zip code.
He should also feel “very, very badly” for the Obama Administration’s desire to perpetuate the failed status quo, thinking that this time Washington will get it right, after decades of intervening into local schools to no avail. Moreover, he should feel “very, very badly” about circumventing Congress and rewriting No Child Left Behind from the executive branch, granting condition-based waivers to states from the onerous provisions of NCLB on the condition that they adopt the Administration’s preferred policies.
But don’t mess with Texas. The Lone Star State’s education policies are not the problem.
The Bloomberg article noted:
Perry has been an outspoken critic of President Barack Obama’s education policies. Perry declined to participate in Obama’s Race to the Top initiative that awards federal grants in exchange for adopting national standards, saying the program “smacks of a federal takeover of public schools.”
“Perry said participating ‘could very well lead to the ‘dumbing down’ of the rigorous standards we’ve worked so hard to enact.'”
There’s plenty to worry about within the American education system. Texas shouldn’t be at the top of the Secretary’s list.